EVEN a brief stay in the West Bank places the Hebron massacre in perspective.
An aberrant act by a psychopath perhaps, but one that was waiting to happen.
It is also one that has happened many times in the 1980s, as repeated armed attacks on unarmed civilians, beginning with the bombs in West Bank mayors' cars, have maimed and claimed the lives of Palestinians.
Victims of other "mini-massacres" include three Palestinian students in Hebron in July 1983, seven Palestinian workers outside Tel Aviv in May 1990 and 18 Palestinian worshipers in Jerusalem in October 1990.
Such massacres will happen again and end any hopes for peace unless the Israeli government summons the political will and courage to police Israeli settlers effectively and signal its intent to move toward eventual elimination of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza altogether.
As temporary residents of the occupied territories, we can understand why local Palestinian support for the Declaration of Principles that Israel and the PLO signed in September has fast been eroding.
Daily life is replete with the tensions of military occupation. Any short trip -- to work, to the store, to get the children from school -- may involve passing through one of the many army checkpoints where papers are scrutinized while a gun is trained on you.
Last year, 21 people lost their lives to army bullets at the checkpoints, and just two weeks before the Hebron massacre a young man was shot and killed by soldiers for making a "threatening gesture" (he was not armed).
If you are male, between say 14 and 40, and Palestinian, you may be stopped and searched roughly at any time, or rounded up for interrogation if you happen by at the wrong moment.
The continuation of killing by the army after the Hebron massacre is a grim reminder of the imbalance of forces. Understandably, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres' assurances that Israel does not want to dominate the Palestinians ring hollow.
The fear and insecurity is compounded by the presence of the settlements and settlers. Israeli analysts estimate that 15 to 20 percent of the 120,000 Jewish settlers are of a political mind to die for (and presumably kill for) the idea of Greater Israel.
They are allowed to live and travel freely in the West Bank and Gaza armed to the teeth, even though they make no secret of their dedication to the idea that the land should be cleansed of all Palestinians. While most Israelis do not subscribe to such virulent racism, these settlers have been subsidized and protected by the Israeli state.
The issue of the settlements, a major source of insecurity and justification for the steady confiscation of Palestinian lands, has been injudiciously left out of the peace negotiations. Surely it is the time to put it on the agenda.
The first settlements (1967 to 1977) were built by the Labor government. The stated aim of the settlements, apart from the settlements in Arab Jerusalem, was security. It was to be achieved through the establishment of a string of settlements along the Jordan Valley that would insure defensible borders. The rest of the West Bank was to remain empty of Jewish settlements, and would finally become autonomous and linked to Jordan.
The security function of the front-line settlements proved doubtful after Syrian forces overran Golan Heights settlements in the first hours of the 1973 war. The use of missiles in the Persian Gulf war further discredited the value of settlements as a security instrument. (The bumper sticker most popular among Israelis who support the Israeli-PLO accord reads, "Peace Is My Security.")
The second wave of settlements began in 1977, when Likud took power, and lasted until 1992, when it was ousted. The Likud wanted the eventual annexation of the West Bank and Gaza. Its strategy was the creation of "facts" on the ground and the implantation of a large Jewish population.
Although this phase was ideologically motivated, the incentives to settlers were material: low-cost housing, subsidized water and electricity and other perks.
More than two-thirds of the settlers chose areas close to the Israel-West Bank border, where they could commute to work in centers of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Recent polls show that a strong minority of these settlers are willing to leave if compensated.
The Likud government considered the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as residents, with no rights over land or water in "Judea and Samaria." The approach had one serious, if not fatal, defect: By the year 2010, greater Israel would include within its borders a large number of Palestinians, 4 million or so in the West Bank and Gaza and 1.3 million within its pre-1967 borders.
A democratic greater Israel would effectively be a binational state. A non-democratic Israel would amount to apartheid, South Africa-style, with never-ending conflict. In either case, the state would be hardly Jewish, and the Zionist dream of a purely Jewish state in Palestine would be --ed.
Of course, the right wing had another idea: expulsion of the Palestinians, under the euphemism of a population "transfer." But even expulsion would not bring Israel peace or recognition in the region; the Palestinians would surely end up in Jordan, with no incentive to negotiate or make peace with Israel. The cycle of killings on both sides would continue.
Such calculations figured prominently in the decision of the current Israeli government to negotiate with the PLO, speak of territorial concessions and otherwise start the march toward peace with the Palestinians.
Palestinians saw their land being confiscated wholesale, the settlements mushroom, the number of settlers multiply and the landscape acquire a new face. A process of displacement (of Palestinians) and replacement (by Jews) was taking place, one that was frightfully similar to the process through which Palestine, or most of it, was transformed into Israel.
Apart from Israel's physical reality and military strength, the Palestinians' wish to salvage what could be selvaged was decisive in their coming to the negotiating table and recognizing Israel.
The equation has changed. As Palestinians see the settlements expand, more land taken away, settlers brandishing guns and the army mobilized to protect them, they are quickly losing the incentive to uphold the peace agreement. They feel their recognition of Israel has brought little thus far, and if it brings anything in the future it would be a feeble, fragmented entity.
Speedy resolution of the settlement issue is not only key to basic Palestinian security but also critical to any attempt to bring peace to the region.
Sharif S. Elmusa and his wife, Judith E. Tucker, are senior Fulbright fellows and live in the West Bank.